[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/02/23/canadian_oil_003.copy.jpg caption="Dust hangs in the sunset sky above the Suncor Millennium mine, an open-pit north of Fort McMurray, Alberta."]
National Geographic Magazine
There were two moments last summer in northern Alberta, where National Geographic had sent me on assignment to write about the oil sands boom, when I felt I was beginning to get it–when I glimpsed the full dimensions of the story in time and space.
In the Athabasca Valley north of Fort McMurray, the oil companies are going to amazing lengths to scrape oil from the frozen ground. First, they raze the boreal forest, then they strip-mine tarry sand with gargantuan trucks and steam shovels, and finally they cook the tar out of the sand and then cook it some more to upgrade it to oil. It takes a huge amount of energy. That puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, above and beyond what comes out our tailpipes when we burn the resulting gasoline.
Environmentalists had told me how insane that was, and what a threat to wildlife and people’s health the mines were in the area. Oil company executives and Alberta officials had told me those concerns were exaggerated, that Americans and other people have to run their cars on something, and the oil companies are just getting the oil where they can find it. Better from Alberta than from Venezuela or Nigeria or Iran, they said. It was all true, and all predictable.
But I couldn’t have predicted Jim Boucher’s story. He’s the chief of Fort McKay First Nation, the Indian band that lives in a small community that is now surrounded by mines. As a boy in the 1960s Boucher helped his grandfather set traps for mink and muskrat in a patch of forest that is now a mine pit, next to a lake that is now flanked by a refinery and a toxic tailings pond. The oil companies erased his boyhood world and boyhood dreams, transforming wilderness into industrial landscape–and Boucher is now working with them.
In fact he’s built a $100 million business for his community out of working with them. And partly as a result, his community now has a lot of things he didn’t have growing up—things like electricity, indoor plumbing, and telephones. Boucher has become an avid golfer—but he can’t eat fish anymore from the river that flows past his front door. Finding the right balance isn’t easy, he said.
The other moment of clarity came for me in a helicopter. There’s no place like a helicopter for appreciating what an ugly scar on the landscape the oil sands mines really are–and also what a small scar they are compared with the immense untouched boreal forest. That means there is still time for us to make the right choices. And strangely, hovering over a tailings pond one evening, looking at the setting sun glinting off a forest of smokestacks, I felt a surge of optimism. It takes amazing human energy and ingenuity to do what the oil companies are doing in the Athabasca valley–and with the right incentives, that ingenuity could be redirected along better paths.
That evening, my last in Alberta, oil closed at $147 a barrel. As I write, it’s at $39 a barrel. The oil sands boom has ground to a halt; we’re in a horrible recession. It’s not easy to take the long view these days—but if you do, it’s a time of great hope.
Editor's Note: For more on the oil sands boom in Alberta, read the March issue of National Geographic Magazine. To see more photos, click here.
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